Companies Face Software Copyright Fines, Despite Tech Solution

Loraine Lawson

You may not realize it, but if you work for a small business, there's bounty of up to $1 million on your head for reports of counterfeit or unlicensed software. And your employees are encouraged to turn you in to claim it.


That's the new policy of the Business Software Alliance, a copyright enforcement group that works for Microsoft, Adobe, IBM, Symantec and other big-name software vendors, according to this lengthy Sci-Tech Today feature detailing the BSA's somewhat controversial practices for enforcing software copyright.


"But," you may say to yourself, "there isn't any counterfeit or unlicensed software running in my business."


Are you sure? When you downgraded that older PC to the secretary, did you remove the copy of PowerPoint before installing it on your new PC? Are you sure employees haven't installed software borrowed from a co-worker so they could open a file? And do you have receipts -- not just boxes or certificates of authority, but actual receipts -- for every piece of software installed? Are you following to the letter your software licensing agreement, and are you aware of the variances on all of them?


If you don't, then you could find yourself on the bad side of a BSA audit, and potentially face hefty fines.


Previously, the BSA gave small businesses amnesty, but this year, it dropped the amnesty and is offering rewards to employees for reporting their bosses for misuse. The story notes that an Associated Press investigation revealed that targeting small businesses is big business for the BSA, which reaped $13 million in software violation settlements with North American companies last year. Almost 90 percent were from small businesses, the article notes.


This isn't a matter of companies deliberately creating counterfeits, either. The BSA is nit-picky with its audits, requiring actual receipts for software and busting businesses when employees have violated policy and installed software without approval.


This is a problem that could be largely be solved by an emerging technology that could keep you in line without fines, according to this AP article published on Wired this week. Teenie-weenie caveat: The software vendors will need to peak into your PC to get a few needed details, such as the computer's manufacturer, hard drive serial number and product identification numbers.


Anti-copying technologies offer a technology solution to the copyright/counterfeit software problem. Microsoft's Genuine Software is a good example. The technology allows Microsoft to remotely check your PC and then, if it suspects a product is illegal, enables the company to block access to certain software functions.


Microsoft doesn't monitor the success of the anti-copying technology, per se, but does point out that Windows sales were up 20 percent, but worldwide PC sales climbed only 14-16 percent. The difference, Microsoft surmises, is accounted for by people buying and installing a licensed copy of Windows.


Others have tried anti-copying technology with less success, but the real problem, according to the BSA's former enforcement director, is software companies are afraid effective anti-copying tools will drive customers into the arms of their competition.


Oh, sure, that makes sense...




What, exactly, do they think will happen when business customers receive a court fine that amounts to eight months worth of profits?


They could ask the CEO of musical-instrument maker Ernie Ball Inc., which had to pay a $90,000 settlement after a BSA audit. According to Sci-Tech Today, Microsoft actually sent businesses in his region flyers offering a product discount and warning them against winding up like Ernie Ball. The CEO is quoted as saying he'd never use Microsoft again, even if "we have to buy 10,000 abacuses."


The company now uses open-source software.


All of this, by the way, is exactly why I have a licensed copy of Microsoft Office on my laptop, but am currently typing this in OpenOffice on my shiny new Dell.

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